House of Skeletons
Adie usually finds them in the odd places. We had our wedding outside by a river. She found a dead bird, probably taken down by a stray cat, under one of the folding chairs that we used, and then she brought the thing home. When it comes time for presents, our friends know Adie and purchase accordingly. Three years ago Fred and Alice bought her pliers and a big steel pot. Last year I bought her an assortment of pins and needles, the good ones.
Discrimination is not part of the process, at least not really. There are dead things all over our little house, none of them stuffed. Adie is not picky about the breed or species of the animals. What she wants is some kind of prettiness that hibernates and then stops you just at the right moment, like how the sun comes up on an all-night driver whose clock has stopped working. The wedding bird had that quality. The deer on the side of the road does not.
Once, during the winter, Adie and I found a cat up under our car. Whether we killed it, I can’t say. It would not have made a difference. Now that old thing’s head is on the dresser upstairs.
It took us a long time to get married. Long after we got the house. It was just the thing to do. When we first got together, Adie would light candles in our bedroom on certain nights, the nights that she wanted to love. I would come home from work, in the darkness, and through the door would float this vanilla scent like a childhood street might have. Then I would come into the bedroom and let her undress me. And after we made love we would each take one candle because there were two on the nightstand. I would lean over her and we would blow out the flames together.
And she would say, “It smells like birthday.”
And I would love her a little bit more as we lay with the smoke.
We don’t use candles much anymore, and we don’t spend much time talking of birthdays. We rarely smell them. But it’s not that we can’t. It’s that the doctor tells Adie that we shouldn’t. I don’t mind. It’s for her. There are just things that we can’t do now.
The wedding was next in line. We’d had one thing and then it was gone. We were old by then. It didn’t matter.
At the ceremony Adie’s best old friend read everyone a tale of desperation, perseverance, and achievement. It was a story about Shackleton in Antarctica. If there was one thing that he saw amid a blowing bright white landscape, it must have been a clean house. That’s a little bit like how I remember Adie when I think of her in a wedding dress.
Around the same time as the wedding came the boiling. We moved to a small town in Colorado and started finding dead animals in strange places. They cropped up again and again like the days do.
I said, “What can we do?”
“Keep them,” said Adie.
She would pluck them to the skin and then boil them for what seemed like forever, until there was nothing but bleached white bones. If there was a place in the house, we would keep them there, after Adie strung them all together. Now, her hands are a little weak. The big, sharp, easy-to-prick set I bought her last year only worked for a short time. I do my best to pick up the slack.
Sometimes we would have three or four pots boiling all at once. When the animals were done and put up in the house, there would be a few days that held a lingering smell. It was a smell like old magazines and history.
My favorite animal is the mouse that drowned in the birdbath out back. I was amazed that we were the first to find it.
The other day Adie and I walked to a park downtown. We were getting our exercise. The sun was just barely coming up. The grass was wet and everything smelled sweet. There was a swing-set. On one of the rubber seats, just dangling against the metal chains, was a bird that looked alive but wasn’t. It was propped up against the side of the seat, curled upward, deep brown and a little white. Adie didn’t see the bird at first. I had to show it to her.
“I’m losing it,” she said.
“I just saw it first,” I said.
“The sun is a little hot,” she said.
She did not want to take the bird. We left the park right after that.
On the way home Adie saw a Polaroid camera in the window of a secondhand goods store. She wanted it.
She said, “This’ll do.”
I supposed that it would.
We took it home and looked at the house. I wanted to take a picture of Adie, but she didn’t want to be alone in the picture with the house. She wanted a similar picture of me, but I refused for the same reason. We waited for a while for someone to walk by to take our picture, but no one came. In the end I just took a picture of the house on its own. It was small, and somehow I got the thing right in the center of the photograph, the weeping willow trees framing it on either side.
Adie waved the picture in the air until it was clear. Then she asked for the pen that I always carry. From over her shoulder, I watched her struggle to name the place House of Skeletons in long, thin strokes.
That was that.
I also have a tale that I’ll tell at a wedding someday. It’s better than the Shackleton one, but probably because it’s not real. I just made it up.
It goes like this. In the desert everyone I used to know buries their feet into the hot, dry sand. They stretch their arms out and burn under the sun until their skin is brown like bark. For a second they look at each other and in the heat and sickness think that they have just witnessed a miracle of growth.
And when the sun leaves just their bones, burning white in the sun, they will all be together and brighter.